Saltwater Cowboys and the Feral Descendants of Shipwrecked Ponies: The Chincoteague Pony Swim - Atlas Obscura
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Saltwater Cowboys and the Feral Descendants of Shipwrecked Ponies: The Chincoteague Pony Swim

article-imageChincoteague ponies making their annual swim across the Assateague Channel (photograph by Bonnie U. Gruenberg, via Wikimedia)

The last week in July marks the annual pony round up on the island of Chincoteague, Virginia, where thousands of tourists descend upon the small town to witness the volunteer fire department swim the local population of wild ponies across the Assateague Channel.

article-imageSaltwater cowboys herding the wild ponies (via The Chincoteague Island, Virginia Official Tourist Page)

Every year the department’s “saltwater cowboys” round up the island’s feral equines for a low-tide swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, where the ponies are herded down Main Street and corralled for a later auction. The first foal to make it to shore is crowned King or Queen Neptune and made the prize of the festival’s raffle drawing. The remaining ponies are later auctioned, either for personal ownership or as “buybacks,” in which case the pony will be returned to its island home for another year of feral roaming.

article-imagePony crossing sign in Chincoteague (via Counselman Collection)

The wild beach ponies of Assateague are divided into two herds that are separated by a fence that runs across the island’s Virginia-Maryland borderline. This fence makes it clear which ponies belong to which state, the states having differing views on the wild pony population. In Maryland they are referred to as the Assateague horses and it is believed that their small size is due to environmental adaptation and a diet of dune and marsh grasses as opposed to the horses’ genes. Virginians call them the Chincoteague ponies, insisting their placement in the pony category based on their smallish stature and the traditional distinction between horse and pony, which is whether or not the animal’s height is greater than 14.2 hands.  The Maryland herd belongs to the National Park Service whereas the Virginian wild ponies technically belong to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, allowing them to conduct the yearly round up and subsequent auction.

article-imageThe ponies reaching the Chincoteague shore (via Wikimedia)

This has been a tradition since 1925, when a series of highly destructive fires in the town of Chincoteague made it clear that the fire department was in need of better equipment and more funding. The volunteer fire department held a carnival to raise funds and it was a huge success.  The highlight was the auctioning off of 15 Chincoteague pony colts that were herded across the channel to be held on display in town prior to the bidding. The next year, droves of people showed up to witness a repeat of this spectacle and the Chincoteague Pony Swim has been an annual event ever since.

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The pony swim in the 1940s (via rich701/Flickr user)

While various theories exist as to the origin of the Chincoteague ponies, local legend claims that they are the descendants of horses that survived the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon which occurred on the island hundreds of years ago. There is some evidence to suggest that there may be truth in this story, and that the shipwreck referred to is possibly that of the Spanish galleon La Galga in 1750.

Various treasure seekers have sought to find the sunken ship, but there are some who believe that the ship’s remains may have actually been buried beneath the sand as the beach has been built out and the coastline has changed significantly over the centuries. Maritime historian John Amrhein has appealed to lead an archeological excavation of the site where he believes La Galga is buried, but has been met with some resistance and still awaits permission.  

article-imageFeral ponies roaming their Assateague Island home (via Wikimedia)

Descendants of shipwrecked Spanish thoroughbreds or the remnants of a population of domesticated horses once belonging to early settlers, the wild ponies of Assateague have adapted remarkably well to their feral island lifestyle.  Their mystique continues to lure and inspire Delmarva visitors, and fund a small town fire department.   

Chincoteague Island Pony Swim is July 20 to July 26 in Chincoteague Island, Virginia

THE CHINCOTEAGUE PONY SWIM: ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Maryland/Virginia